Most “Thirty-Ninety-eights” have either been interfered with so much, or else are so excessively exhausted that their original quality has largely disappeared.
OE77 has not been interfered with; nor is it exhausted. It belongs to Val Doone, a partnership which has achieved considerable fame its landscape photographers; those readers who are also keen photographers will either have visited or heard of their recent highly successful exhibition in London. The two partners, Lorna Pritchard and A. G. Willis, are keen vintagents, both in cars and cameras. But they do not look on OE77 as a sports car. They regard it merely as the most suitable car in which to conduct their business. This calls for long, fast, runs (often in order to catch a particular landscape under special weather conditions) with a minimum of fuss and effort and a maximum of comfort and reliability, carrying considerable quantities of delicate photographic gear. Willis bought the car in 1937, and he and Miss Pritchard have become devoted to it, both for its amiable personality, and also because of its special suitability for their requirements.
First licensed on May 2nd, 1924, the Vauxhall was regularly licensed until 1932, but for the next five years it was only run during the six summer months, until it came into Willis’s hands in March, 1937. For the two and a half years from then until the war she covered the useful total of 70,000 miles actually recorded, and was then laid up for the duration.
The 70,000 miles included a lot of rough going in Wales, the Lake District and the Border Country. During that time there were only three involuntary stops, two due to a sticking contact breaker arm and one to being hit full in the face by a gravel lorry. The damage for this incident value to £19 10s., for which the lorry’s insurance company admitted liability, but maintained that 0E77 could not be worth more than £12 10s. altogether. In the end they paid up in full.
When bought by Willis, the car was completely standard, and the only alterations effected since have been to substitute a Scintilla magneto for the original Watford instrument, with greatly improved effect, and to alter the brake linkage. The brakes are of standard O.E. pattern with the quaint but simple kidney box operation for the front wheels. Originally, the hand-lever operated the rear wheel brakes, and the pedal (“for emergency use only”) worked on the transmission brake and front wheels. The revised linkage put all four wheels on the foot-lever, while the handle works on the transmission. The combined power of the two brakes is really remarkable, and while they fade fairly rapidly under repeated and violent application, for the normal requirements of fast touting (as opposed to dicing) they are entirely adequate. The E-type brakes were notoriously sketchy, and the late O.E. Cars, with vast drums and hydraulic operation, were even more notoriously temperamental; but, driven as was intended (which never was as a racer) and judged by the standard of those times, the Vauxhall brakes were probably as good as those of most other machines.
Renewals during 1937-9 amounted to two new sets of plugs and approximately 70 whittle belts, through whose Heath Robinsonian intermediation the dynamo is rotated. These seem to disintegrate at the rate of about one to every thousand Miles! Oil consumption (Castrol R) was too small to measure, and petrol was used up at the rate of 17 m.p.g., on an average.
Having covered 70,000 miles and then been laid up for the war years, Willis conceived the idea of having the engine decarbonised, and this work was carried out by T.H. Plowman, of Luton and “30/98” fame. Plowman also fitted a Ki-gass, which has enormously improved starting from cold. His ministrations have absolutely transformed the car and I, at least, have never experienced another “30/98” which could in any way compare with it, though, undoubtedly, there are many faster examples. The really staggering part of the performance is the smoothness and flexibility, both of which closely approach Rolls-Royce standards. It therefore came as rather a shock to hear Plowman refer deprecatingly to the engine as “very rough.” As he was with Vauxhalls in the days to be proud of, Plowman certainly should know, but to the less experienced observer, it is difficult to see how the present refinement of OE77 could be improved upon.
When a “30/98” is tuned for increased performance it either becomes intolerably rough, or else takes on an entirely diifferent character altogether, seldom for the better. A standard 4 1/2-litre Bentley, by, contrast, was a most cow-like creature in standard form, but gained immeasurably by being hotted up, until one arrives at the stage of Forrest Lycett’s 4 1/2, which is perhaps one of the very nicest sports cars in existence.
But in standard form it is very hard to see how anyone could ever prefer a 4 1/2-litre Bentley to a “30/98” Vauxhall, especially when it is remembered that OE77 was on the road three years before the earliest 4 1/2-litre reached the public. In the first place, there is nothing lumpish in the appearance. The car has the lines of a trained athlete: the whole thing is taught and perfectly poised there are no superfluities. In the driving sfat, everything is just where it should be, and it is immediately instinctive to use the long handbrake, though on this particular car, with its non-standard linkage, this is no longer appropriate. Quite remarkable, too, is the warmth and freedom from draughts of the front seats – though the same cannot be said of the back ones!
Various qualities impress the driver within a few yards: the lightness, sensitiveness and accuracy of the high-geared steering, and the smoothness, flexibility, and low-speed power of the engine. It will run evenly at less than 230 r.p.m. in top gear and accelerate away briskly from that speed – some six or seven m.p.h. – without snatch or delicate use of the small pedal. Starting from rest may be achieved in either bottom or second gear, and the handbook (a rare work, of which Willis fortunately possesses a copy) directs that the gearbox should be worked steadily through from bottom to top, keeping the engine speed as near as possible to 250 r.p.m. until top gear is finally achieved! Once top gear is engaged it needs a very steep hill or abrupt corner to call for the use of any of the lower ratios, and it is this quality which makes the “30/98” able to cover large distances at high average speeds with so little effort from the driver. It also explains, in large measure, he apparently ill-spaced ratios, each of which calls for a 50 per cent. increase in engine speed, the back-axle ratio for the O.E. being 3.3 to 1. This, with the standard 820 by 120 tyres, gives a road speed in top of 29 m.p.h. at 1,000 r.p.m., 96 m.p.h. at the maximum of 3,300 r.p.m., and 77 m.p.h. at a piston speed of 2,500 f.p.m., which is higher than any new post-war British car of which particulars have been released up to the time of going to press, including the immensely fast 3 1/2-litre S.S. and that otherwise extremely promising plot, the 2.4-litre Healey car. Nor is this any theoretical datum, but a speed which a standard “30/98” really would maintain without fuss. Being belt driven, most, if not all, “30/98” speedometers become increasingly slow, as a result of slip, at high speed, and usually the belt flies off altogether approaching terminal velocity. On a slight down-grade, during a recent run, I had an OE77, the indicator moved round to 84 m.p.h. in a very short time, and at this speed (a mere 2,900 r.p.m.) the engine was completely unobtrusive and clearly working comfortably within its limits. In point of fact, 85 m.p.h. was the usual maximum on the level. with full touring equipment and windscreen erect.
While the short-stroke, high-speed engine of the present day offers far greater specific output than engines of the “30/98” class, it is the remarkable low-speed torque of the latter, and their ability to maintain a very high cruising speed at conservative r.p.m. that makes these old cars so attractive and effortless as fast tourers. As examples of design, they are not particularly clever or efficient, but they are remarkably pleasing to use, and one doubts if there will ever again be a car which will cover upwards of 70,000 miles between decarbonisations.
The gearbox gives a slow clutchless change, but by using the excellent multiplate clutch upward changes may be snatched while the throttle is held fully open. It is a change effected without the least sound, and is a most exhilarating experience. Similarly, a snap getaway done by dropping in the clutch at about 1,500 to 2,000 r.p.m. sends the car fairly leaping off the mark, the whole of the back part rising high on the springs as the tremendous load is suddenly put through — and this despite the torque arm.
As I drove it, the carburetter of OE77 seemed not to be entirely happy, having been adjusted for economy and Pool octanes, so that the time from rest to a speedometer 50 m.p.h. (which may well have been slow) was the rather disappointing one of 14 seconds. But, as has already been said, it is not in terms of stop-watch times that “30/98” performance must be measured; it is in their all-round, top-gear urge that lies the secret of their enduring reputation.
Corning back into London it was starting to rain and the roads were exceptionally greasy. “30/98s” had a bad reputation for excessive indulgence in “the dreaded sideslip” on wet roads, with beaded-edge tyres. So I was very interested to see what would happen. In point of fact, when driven with reasonable discrimination there was no difficulty at all, and only once, when I crammed everything on for some suddenly changing traffic lights, did the wheels lock, so we let those lights pass. Later, as confidence increased, I started playing bears a little, spinning the wheels on slippery corners, but the manners of the car remained absolutely impeccable on every occasion, as they had been throughout the rest of the run. In this connection, there is no doubt that the excellent roadholding and comfort of the standard car, with its light tyres, brakes and axles, was largely sacrificed by fitting fat tyres and heavier axles, as was commonly done by the ardent “improver.”
In general, this very grand car clearly showed its parentage by its similarity to thr “Prince Henry” model which I recently described in Motor Sport. After a total mileage which can hardly fall short of 200,000 miles, it is still a young car, sound of wind and limb, and ready for many more adventures into the Welsh mountains in search of photographic subjects.
In one respect only it could be improved ; the headlights are simply awful.